Disney’s “Mary Poppins Returns” is an ambitious project from the Mouse House. The original movie was such a huge success, Walt Disney was able to leverage the profits from the film to start building his Project X, the idea that would become EPCOT and then open as the Walt Disney World resort. The real question for the modern down Walt Disney Company was… could a sequel ever come close to the magical success of the first?
Director and cowriter Rob Marshall enlisted Emily Blunt to recreate the iconic role and brought on current musical super-star Lin-Manuel Miranda to be her plucky co-conspirator in magic. The result is a sweet, optimistic, at times flighty film about a family Disney fans are intimately familiar with already.
The new film catches up with the Banks family, now headed by Michael Banks and his sister Jane during depression era London. Like many families, they’re struggling to make ends meet and dealing with loss of a dear family member, which means the children have been forced to grow up too quickly and lost their grip on the joys of childhood. Sounds like a job for certain flying nanny.L
The story told in the movie holds a mirror to all the very adult affairs we’re dealing with in today’s world and Mary Poppins’ delivers a bathtub full of wonder to help us all get through it. At times the story seems a bit too dead on reflection of very real world issues kids are seeing their parents deal with right now. Then, as in the original movie, Mary Poppins floats down from the clouds to save the Banks family again.
As much as “Mary Poppins Returns” is a sequel, it’s also a loving homage to the original movie. Emily Blunt wisely doesn’t try to recreate Julie Andrews’ take on the character, but instead finds some inspiration from the books where Poppins is a bit more stern in her criticism. And yet, this is still the same Mary from the original, just a bit further traveled, perhaps having learned a few lessons of her own along the way. The other thing that’s wonderful about Blunt’s take on Poppins is how she’s positively thrilled to have the chance to go into these make-believe worlds and to help shape the lives of another generation of Banks children (and their parents).
There are many other parallels to the original Mary Poppins. Where the original featured a visit with the unstoppable laughter of Uncle Albert, “Returns” takes a trip to see crazy Cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep). Rather than jump into chalk drawings, the team rides through the unique geography of a cracked china bowl. At the end, instead of flying kites, everyone is soaring on balloons. This sort of repetition is common in children’s books, so seeing it in a movie based of a beloved-series of children’s takes isn’t that unusual.
While there are no songs from the original reprised in ‘Returns,’ the musical themes you fondly remember do shine through to remind you of that magical moment from the first. The movie even starts with an overture, just like in the original. The music and lyrics from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman in the new songs evoke a more modern stage musical and yet clearly fit in the familiar world of Mary Poppins.
One thing I was happy to see return from the original were the animated sequences. You get two songs in one great animated sequence that blends live-action, computer animation, and hand-drawn characters in what is arguably the movie’s most show-stopping sequence. That scene itself took 16-months to animate.
Another fun thing to watch out for are a couple of fabulous cameo appearances. Dick Van Dyke, who played both the Chimney Sweep Bert but also the elder banker Mr. Dawes, Sr., now returns as his son Dawes, Jr.. Also appearing is Angela Lansbury, who starred in Disney’s other big musical of the era “Bedknobs and Broomsticks.” We loved Van Dyke’s tap dance number in “Returns.” Both cameos generated a round of applause from our audiences when they appeared on screen.
As for the story itself, I think the key here isn’t to think too critically about it. The general plot, with its mustache twirling villain and last-minute intervention to save the day, is just a frame to hang the magical, imaginative world of Mary Poppins on. The good news is it’s a world you’ll want to revisit over and over again.
Like the iconic nanny herself, “Mary Poppins Returns” is practically perfect in every way. You can return to her world yourself on December 19th in US theatres.